‘What ifs’ answered at sales-tax open houses

Representatives from Port St. Lucie, St. Lucie County and Fort Pierce last week held open houses to explain to residents the half-cent sales tax question on the Nov. 6 ballot and educate them on what the funds generated by the measure could be used for.

Two years ago, that same ballot question was asked – and voters said “No.” This go-round, the different governmental entities are working more cooperatively and proactively to get the word out about the referendum.

In the half-cent sales tax is approved, Port St. Lucie would like to spend nearly $82 million over the next 10 years on projects such as improving St. Lucie West Boulevard, making intersection improvements within Torino, improving Floresta, and repaving roads.

St. Lucie County also has a list of projects – $79 million worth – in the same timeframe, including upgrades to Prima Vista Boulevard, McCarty Road Bridge over Ten Mile Creek, and various sidewalks.

The governments themselves cannot advocate for or against referenda on the ballot; they can only educate about what the results could entail. But individuals, speaking for themselves on their own time, have more wiggle room.

At last week’s open house, Shannon Mieras, a project manager for the St. Lucie County Public Works Department, and her team crafted an oversized Monopoly-style board game representing the various projects that could be funded if the sales tax initiative were approved.

Players received $6.5 million and set out around the board paying for various projects and getting hit with true-to-life emergencies, such as hurricane cleanup.

Mieras said the purpose of the game was to show players just how far $6.5 million can actually go in a fun way that might stick with them. “That was the idea,” she said – educate and have fun.

Lourdes Lassales and Juan Peralta spent several minutes at Oxbow’s table where a representative explained the importance of the proposed water quality projects.

“I was very curious,” Lassales said. “I had heard about the tax” but didn’t know much about it.

The Torino resident said that she was willing to support the referendum after the open house. Prior to, she was undecided.

Lassales pointed to the 10-year timeframe for the sales tax collection and the oversight that would be in place to ensure the dollars are spent as promised. “It seems like they planned,” she said.

Others who attended the open house at the Port St. Lucie Community Center, including Realtor Paul Schall of Coldwell Banker, took a few minutes to don a virtual reality headset and take a “drive” and “walk” along city streets.

Schall relayed his experience as he “drove” along pothole-riddled roads and again along the same road repaved. He called out to a pedestrian who was walking too close to the road due to the lack of sidewalks.

At the end of the demonstration, Schall was all smiles. “I like roller coasters,” he said.

Schall said he supports the half-cent sales tax and plans to promote it at his upcoming homeowners association meeting at Indian River Estates.

Fort Pierce Westwood High School teacher Mark Bryant was a strong supporter of the tax referendum two years ago and nothing has changed, he said.

For him, seeing Floresta Drive on the list of to-be-done projects pushed his support over the top. “It’s terrible to drive on,” he said, explaining that he remembers riding on that road as a child, and that it hasn’t gotten any better.

And, now, with the Wawa that recently opened, traffic has gotten worse, Bryant said, and the need for improvements along Floresta is “urgent more than ever.”

County Administrator Howard Tipton has warned the County Commission that if the half-cent sales tax referendum does not pass in November, they will have to go back to the budget to figure out how to fund the most urgent of projects, which will mean cuts to various departments.

Port St. Lucie City Manager Russ Blackburn has not made such dire comments. Instead, he noted that the proposed budget put forth earlier this summer did not account for the sales tax referendum, nor did it assume a result in the homestead exemption ballot question.

Passage of the homestead exemption and denial of the sales tax could affect the county’s budget by $18 million annually, county officials have warned.

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